Extreme weather delays Sri Lanka's post-war reconstruction

By Amantha Perera
Tamil people, who escaped Tamil Tigers rebels-held area following fighting between Sri Lanka army and Tamil Tigers, are seen inside a temporary refugee camp in Vavuniya, northern Sri Lanka February 23, 2009. REUTERS/Nir Elias/Files

By Amantha Perera

COLOMBO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A series of extreme weather events in the past three years has held back already slow post-war reconstruction efforts in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, officials and experts say.

An 11-month drought eased only in early December, and has been followed by monsoon-linked flooding that could cause additional delays.

This year’s long dry spell drove down agricultural production. Water shortages also hampered the building of thousands of houses to replace those destroyed in 2008 and 2009, during the last phase of the country’s 26-year war between the government and Tamil insurgents.

"The drought has been terrible - probably the worst in the last decade," said Rupavanthi Ketheeswaran, the top public official for Kilinochchi District, one of four that make up Northern Province.

The Sri Lanka Red Cross Society said the drought had been a major concern for re-housing efforts in 2014.

"The project was partly affected by a prolonged drought," the Red Cross said in an update early this month. "Shortage of both surface and ground water, and limited water supply from the local authorities and local suppliers delayed construction."

Only about a third of the 138,651 homes needed have been constructed so far, despite the war ending in May 2009.

Experts say extreme weather events - which are expected to increase as the planet warms - are putting conflict-affected communities across South Asia in harm’s way.

In the restive Rakhine State of western Myanmar, for example, aid officials say monsoon-related floods have periodically worsened the humanitarian situation.

Rising religious tensions have forced over 140,000 to flee their homes there, and aid agencies estimate that at least 800,000 people are in dire need of relief.

In 2010, over 300,000 in the state were affected by two cyclones. According to Pierre Péron, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Myanmar, over 40 percent of the population in Rakhine lives below the poverty line, and reoccurring extreme weather events are making their situation worse.

FARMERS HIT

In Sri Lanka, the drought has had serious repercussions for the farming sector in the north, with crop losses likely to exceed 30 percent.

In the first half of this year, the rice harvest was only 122,000 metric tonnes, less than half of the targeted 300,000 metric tonnes, said Sivapatham Sivakumar, director of agriculture at the Northern Provincial Council.

Overall, agricultural production is expected to fall by around 40 percent this year, with rice production contracting some 30 percent to a six-year low.

The drought’s impact on agriculture has been widely felt in Northern Province where around a third of the population of just over 1 million depends on it for income. About a quarter of the population are displaced people returning home after the war.

"There have been a lot of loan defaulters in the last year, because people don’t have the money to meet repayment obligations," said Murugesu Kayodaran, a rehabilitation officer for the Kilinochchi Divisional Secretariat who looks after the needs of returnees.

Poverty in the region is among the highest in the nation. Mullaitivu, where the war raged worst, ranks as the poorest district with a poverty level of 28.8 percent, over four times the national average of 6.7 percent, government statistics show.

Despite this, people in the province tried to buy water for reconstruction purposes during the drought, the Red Cross said. In some areas the water available was not suitable for construction due to a high level of salt, making it unsuitable for mixing concrete, the agency added.

MONSOON FLOODS

Officials like Kayodaran and Sivakumar worry that some of those affected by drought will lose their farm plots or their homes if they cannot repay loans.

"Land was the only asset that most of the returnees had to seek loans on - now they run the risk of losing that," Kayodaran said.

This year’s drought is the latest in a series of back-to-back extreme weather events that have hit Sri Lanka’s former conflict zone in the last three years. There were two major droughts in mid-2010 and late 2012, as well as heavy flooding in 2011 and 2012. 

The end of this year’s drought has now given way to floods, caused by the onset of the North East Monsoon that became active in mid-December.

The rains have brought severe flooding, with almost half a million people affected across the country, including in the Northern regions, according to the Disaster Management Centre.

Ahead of the monsoon season, which runs through February, the Red Cross warned rains could cause further delays to home reconstruction in the north.

(Reporting by Amantha Perera; editing by Megan Rowling)